Understanding how news works can short-circuit the connection between social media use and vaccine hesitancy

The Research Brief is a short take about interesting academic work.

The big idea

People who consume a lot of news on social media are more likely to be skeptical of COVID-19 vaccines and also more hesitant about getting vaccinated, according to our newly published research. But we found that social media users with higher levels of news literacy have more confidence in COVID-19 shots.

Other research has found that heavy reliance on social media exposed individuals to misinformation related to COVID-19, especially on the efficacy of vaccines.

In the thick of the pandemic in 2020, we measured how skeptical social media users were about the development of a safe and effective COVID-19 vaccine and how likely they would be to get the shot if it were available.

We also assessed participants’ news literacy by asking nine questions that tested how much they knew about how journalism works – for example, identifying which outlets did their own reporting as opposed to aggregating news, and which publications were for-profit. You can take the quiz to test your own level of media literacy.

In our study, participants with low levels of news literacy, which meant correctly answering only three of the nine questions on average, were more likely to be vaccine hesitant than those with moderate (four to six correct answers) or high (seven or more correct answers) levels of news literacy.

We infer that mis- and disinformation about the efficacy of COVID-19 vaccines that spreads via social media transforms into vaccine hesitancy, especially among people who are less savvy about distinguishing real from false news. Our conclusion fits with other researchers’ finding that enhancing media literacy is an effective intervention against misinformation.

Why it matters

During the pandemic, people relied heavily on social media for recreation, stress reduction and coronavirus-related news.

For instance, a 2021 report by Pew Research Center found about half of Americans relied on social media for news about COVID-19. As a result, social media users were exposed to misinformation about the coronavirus at the same time skepticism of scientists and public health institutions related to COVID-19 was on the rise. Health misinformation on social media can also lead people to develop false beliefs about public health interventions such as vaccines.

Despite the mass availability of vaccines in the United States, only 49% of the population had completed the primary COVID-19 series and gotten a booster shot as of Oct. 19, 2022. A March 2022 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found unvaccinated people were 12 times more likely to be hospitalized than those who were vaccinated.

Vaccination helps mitigate the harmful effects of COVID-19. Anything that erodes confidence in the shot matters for public health.

What other research is being done

One important line of work investigates who is likely to be susceptible to COVID-19 misinformation. For instance, one 2020 study found that heavy users of social media who are also politically conservative are more likely to be susceptible to misinformation related to COVID-19 than those who are not conservative.